Kai Tak Part 6 – New Airport Construction

For anyone over the age of 35, and if you came to Hong Kong before 1998, you are likely to remember the first time you landed at Kai Tak. It may have been the dramatic approach from the north-west, skimming over the buildings where you could see the laundry hanging on the washing lines. Or if arriving over the sea, the sensation of the airliner dropping ever lower, skimming over the water to suddenly bump down on the runway. It may have been the pungent smell of the nullah as the plane door was opened (Apocryphal-“What is that awful smell” asked an arriving passenger to a Hong Konger-“ahh, that is the smell of money!!”), or it could have been the organised chaos of the cramped terminal building. It was the airport everyone loved or hated for its unique nature and forced efficiency. But how did it come about?

The Need

Within weeks of the re-occupation of Hong Kong in September 1945, work started on searching for a site for a new airport to replace Kai Tak. The existing location was too constrained by the priority of military needs i.e. the Royal Air Force, and unsuitable for the forthcoming modern airliners. Sites at Ping Shan, Deep Bay and even Stonecutter’s Island were considered, with work commencing at Ping Shan before being abandoned. After a detailed technical and financial review, all were dismissed in favour of a redevelopment of Kai Tak. In July 1952 the Hong Kong Government appointed Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners (SWK) to investigate the possible Kai Tak options along with developing a cost estimate.

1946 6179046

Kai Tak (1946)

Scheme D Arrangement

By the summer of 1952 details of the operational characteristics of the new jet airliners (DH Comets ordered by BOAC) became available and were used to assist in the development of the new runway arrangement. The preferred solution, Scheme D, proposed a single runway constructed predominantly on reclamation on an alignment of 135/315 orientated towards the Lei Mun Gap. The scheme required aircraft approaching from the north-west to make a 40 degree turn onto the 914m straight approach path to touch down. Although the scheme was developed to meet the recently published international design standards for new airports, it was not clear if future aircraft could safely complete this manoeuvre[i].

In January 1953, the Director of Civil Aviation presented the scheme in London to seek confirmation of the approach and to confirm if the existing 07/25 runway would still be required. Trials were undertaken using the new de Havilland Comet at Blackbushe, a diversion  airport near London to confirming the suitability of the approach and the single runway arrangement. In March 1963, SWK was instructed to develop the scheme with regard to the construction aspects and costs[ii].

1953 Kai Tak

Scheme D Proposed Runway Alignment (1953)

The initial proposal provided a 2,743m runway on a reclamation 323m wide, to allow for a parallel taxiway offset 152m between centrelines, requiring 307 acres of new reclamation. This would be suitable for all current and anticipated aircraft, but it was estimated to cost $149 million or $136 million excluding the Royal Air Force’s requirements. The scheme would take five years to construct but more importantly the territory could not afford the scheme: “Government was naturally perturbed at the estimated cost”[iii].

Cost Reduction

The original proposal was developed to meet international aviation operational requirements, but major cost savings could be achieved if the new airport was only to serve a regional role. The runway length could be reduced to 2,195m and the width of the reclamation reduced to 183m with the removal of the taxiway. Along with a reduced terminal area, this gave a 42% saving on cost and reduced the construction duration by one year. However, the scheme had two serious limitations:

  • the shorter runway would not be able to accommodate the future long-range aircraft that would be operational by the time the airport was commissioned; and
  • the omission of the taxiway reduced the operational capacity of the runway. A later increase in width of the reclamation would be expensive as it would require the construction of a new sea-wall and the cost of the original would have been wasted.

In the late summer of 1953, the Government formed a committee to review the SWK proposal and the cost reduction options. The committee reported in October noting that it was: “in the interests of the Colony to develop Kai Tak on a modified Scheme D layout, the extent of the development being dependent on the United Kingdom interest”.

Following discussions with the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, a revised scheme was approved with an estimated cost of $97 million supported by a UK Government interest free loan of $48 million[iv].

Final Configuration

A compromise was required. To provide for long-haul planes, the runway was extended inland and by taking advantage of the longer take off distances than landing, the pavement was taken to within 20m of the first approach lights, and thus a runway of 2,440m was available to all except for approaches from the north-west where only 2,195m was available. This was considered sufficient for all aircraft.

To address the runway capacity constraint, a parallel taxiway would be provided but the off-set would be reduced from 152m to 111m resulting in a 242m wide reclamation of 162 acres.

The terminal was to be located in the existing airfield, avoiding the need for reclamation and providing short taxiing distances. However, to maintain the operation of the existing 07/25 runway during the construction of the new runway, construction of the terminal building could not commence until the new runway had been commissioned and the old runway closed. This would require a staged construction of the new airport.

1953 Layouts

Initial and Final Airport Configuration

Approach Path

To ensure a safe approach path over Kowloon, a number of existing features infringing the flight path had to be removed. This included the hills at Kowloon Tsai which had to be cut down by around 30m, the removal of the remains of the Sacred Hill at Sung Wong Toi, and three recently built blocks of flats (HSBC staff accommodation) had to be demolished. For the latter infringement, in the end however, only the top four floors of the tower blocks were removed, requiring the remaining residents to live directly under the noisy flight path. The excavation of the hills would generate a much needed 2.24 million m3 of material for the reclamation, and rock for the sea wall.

1953 Kai Tak Development

Runway Design

The runway design was largely controlled by two particular constraints, settlement of the reclamation and the imposed load from aircraft wheels. The former was addressed through the design of the reclamation and appropriate construction methods, while the latter was by considering the aircraft wheel loads. It was recognised that the new aircraft were heavier, the current Boeing 707 weighed just under 300,000 lb and was forecast to get heavier. However, the larger planes had more wheels to spread the load, thus after considering various wheel combinations and spacings, the worst case was determined to be a single wheel with a 60,000 lb load and with a tire pressure of 250 lb/square inch.

The runway pavement would be constructed of asphalt on a compacted sand formation. The aircraft stand and sections of the runway where the RAF started their take-off would be of concrete construction, thus avoiding the problems previously encountered where the jet engines damaged the asphalt by their exhaust heat.

1955 Runway Design

Runway Design


International tenders were issued in March, 1955 for the construction of the runway and the works were awarded on the 2nd August 1955 to the Societe Francaise d’Entreprises de Dragages et de Travaux Publics, otherwise known as Dragages, with Gammon (Malaya) as their main subcontractor, for $90 million[v]. This represented the largest single contract ever awarded by the Hong Kong Government. Dragages would undertake all the dredging and marine works, while Gammon would complete the sea wall, pavements and excavation of the hills. The runway construction was forecast to take three years, to be followed by construction of aircraft stands and the terminal building.

The remainder of 1955 was spent mobilising the construction team, plant and equipment from around the world. This included:

  • two large bucket dredgers and a floating crane which were towed from Southern France;
  • a fleet of 9 tugs, 10 barges and 4 pontoons fabricated in the Hong Kong dockyards;
  • the machinery for a grab dredger and two small cutter-suction dredgers and engines for the tugs and bucket dredgers were shipped from the U.S.A.;
  • a fleet of tipping lorries were sourced from the UK and bodies for these were fabricated in the territory;
  • excavators, bull-dozers and a variety of other plant came Singapore, England and the U.S.A.; and
  • a floating crane and 3 flat-topped barges were purchased locally.

1955 Material SourcesRunway Material Sources

The reclamation works required the construction of 5.2km of new sea wall and the placing of 8.4 million m3 of fill. Two million m3 of the fill was to be obtained from the hill removal and the remainder dredged from the seabed off Hung Hom.

1957 Excavating Hills

Excavation of the Kowloon Hills (1957)

Excavation of the Kowloon Hills and Sung Wong Toi hill started on the 26th December, 1955 but full production was not achieved until 9th March, 1956 when a dedicated fenced road corridor was completed through Kowloon. The corridor required the construction of two vehicular bridges and nine pedestrian footbridges allowing the movement of 2,000 trucks a day of decomposed granite from the hill removal. The encountered granite boulders were either split to create pitch blocks or broken up for inclusion in the runway foundation. By the end of March 1956, over 34,000 m3 of material was being placed each day.

1956 Dedicated Road

Dedicated Haul Road Through Kowloon (1956 Charles Chic Eather)

There was great excitement with the start of the dredging works in late 1955 as a Japanese plane had crashed into the harbour near the end of the war and, according to legend, it had been full of gold. Unfortunately, no such treasure trove was discovered[vi]. However, in November 1957 an ancient canon, cast in the 4th year of the Wing Lik Reign of the Ming Dynasty, 1649 was dredged from the harbour. It was cleaned up and in 1975 put on display by the Central Government Offices[vii], is it still there?

The Sung Wong Toi hill that needed to be trimmed down included the original Sacred Stone. Craftsmen were employed to cut out the inscription from the large boulder and moved to the site of the new dedicated garden and was designated as a historic monument.

1956 Sung Wong Toi (2)

Removal of the Sacred Stone (1956)

After some initial difficulties with coordination, additional dredging plant was mobilised to achieve over 0.8 million m3 per month. By the end of March 1957, over 50% of the reclamation was completed. The contractor had removed 1 million m3 of mud, placed 3.4 million m3 of dredged sand and nearly 1 million m3 of decomposed granite excavated from the hills. With the works on programme for an August 1958 opening, work progressed on the contracts for the airfield lighting, terminal apron, realignment of existing nullahs along with the new roads and drainage.

1957 Runway Construction

Runway Construction (1957)

The summer of 1957 brought typhoons and heavy rain, disrupting the land operations while the dredging continued throughout the heavy rain. Completed work was damaged and typhoon ‘Gloria’ disrupted the marine operations. However, with a team of over 3,000 workers, the contractor recovered from the setbacks and by the end of 1957, the reclamation works were completed on programme.

The next operations were the installation of the drainage, fire mains and pavements with good progress achieved, and by March 1958, two thirds of the asphalt was placed and laying of grass turf sourced from the old airport commenced. Installation of the ducts for the runway lighting progressed along with re-alignment of a nullah and construction of a new Clearwater Bay Road bridge.

1961 Terminal Layout

Terminal Area Layout (1961)

The contract for the airport lighting was tendered in November 1957 and awarded to the British General Electric Company in February 1958. Upon award, detailed discussions were undertaken to finalise the requirements. Delays were experienced on agreeing the specification and in the delivery of long lead items. The runway and taxiway lighting progressed but delays in the supply of switchgear and construction of the north-west approach lights were problems. The latter required the design of structures to support the lights to be erected adjacent to and on existing buildings. This required authorisation from the Governor.

1962 Approach Lights Of Kai Tak Airport, 1960s

Kowloon City Approach Lights (1962)

The runway pavement was completed by July 1958 and received its initial runway markings. Installation of the runway lighting was completed by the 31st August 1958 after the laying of 56km of cable in five months. Installation of the north-west approach lights commenced after the opening of the runway and required the installation of over 200 lights on houses and tenements in the Kowloon City area. The works were handed over on the 17th July 1958 although they had already been used in late June for a special night charter flight.

1958 Reduced Hills

Reduced Kowloon Tsai Hills

Runway Opening

It was planned to open the new runway at dawn on the 12st September 1958, but on the previous day, a USAF C54 had crashed on landing, blocking both existing runways. The plane had clipped the seawall and the undercarriage collapsed, the plane skidding 500m before stopping at the intersection of the existing runways. The crew scrambled out to watch the plane burst into flames. When asked if any one had panicked, the 24-year-old radio operator said, “Panic! Of course not. We are all United States Air Force men”[viii]. It is not clear if the implication was that they were highly trained for such a situation, or whether it was a regular occurrence!

With both the existing runways blocked with the plane wreckage, airfield operations transferred to the new runway 15 hours ahead of schedule to allow the arrival of a US Navy Amphibian UF-1 Albatross followed by a Philippine Airlines airliner, ruining the plans for Cathay Pacific to be the last to take-off from the old runway and the first to land. The race was on to be the first plane to take-off on the new runway. A Cathay Pacific DC-6 taxied out followed by an RAF Venom jet fighter. While the Cathay plane was doing its pre-flight checks, the Venom was given permission to take off, followed five minutes later by the DC-6.

With low cloud, scattered showers and 30-knot gusts, the Governor Sir Robert Black arrived by helicopter at 5:30pm. With 50,000 spectators and 500 official guests onlooking, his helicopter dipped to cut a ribbon strung between two posts, followed by setting off traditional firecrackers. Once on the ground, the Governor gave a speech thanking those involved with the planning and construction before formally opening the runway. Two green flares were lit to signal the pilots of three RAF Venom aircraft to start their engines. As the jets taxied to the start of the runway the clouds burst open and the three fighters roared down the runway as the crowed rushed for cover from the rain. A few minutes later with the easing of the rain, nine civilian aircraft then took off and undertook a fly-past as the rain stopped, before the guests moved to the new fire station for cocktails[ix].

1958 Runway Opening

Cutting the Runway Opening Ribbon (1958)

 New Terminal Building

In 1956 Ramsey, Murray, White & Ward were appointed as the consulting architects for the new terminal building. The London based company was famous for its design of industrial units, while the director Keith Murray an architect and decorated RAF pilot, was considered to be one of the most influential designers of the art deco and modern age[x]. Keith visited the territory in February 1957 to hold a series of meetings with the different stakeholders and to develop a technical proposal. His initial plans for the terminal building were submitted to the Airport Progress Committee and were then approved in March 1957. With an agreed layout in place, Keith returned to London to prepare more detailed plans while the Government appointed Eric B Cumine, a former Shanghai based architect, to prepare the working drawings. Eric would later go on to design numerous prominent buildings in the colony, and the Lisboa hotel and casino for Stanley Ho[xi].

Detailed drawings of the new building were submitted in July 1957 and following a cost review, further studies were undertaken on traffic projections and passenger movements within the building to justify the scale of the building. Further changes were implemented to improve the operation of the building and to reduce the cost by deferring the north-west and transit wings. Thus, on the 13th September 1958, the Government approved the layout allowing the preparation of detailed drawings.

By November 1958, the arrangement for baggage handling had not been resolved and so it was decided to send the Chief Air Traffic Control Officer to the UK to consult with suppliers, designer and operators. Returning in December 1958, the passenger and baggage handling arrangements were resolved allowing the relevant drawings and specifications to be prepared.

1959 Terminal Building

Model of the New Terminal Building (1959)

The design of the terminal building had been driven by the functional requirements and adopted the new approach of separating arriving and departing passengers. Arriving passengers would be handled on the ground floor, with departing passengers on the first floor and all the baggage handling operations in the basement. This would become the standard template for all future terminal buildings. The building was designed to handle 550 passengers per hour and included a 220-seat restaurant, viewing gallery and a bar with a dance floor. The terminal had five aircraft stands next to the building and five remote stands.

The final design of the building was approved in August 1959 and working drawings were prepared for issue in November 1959 and award on 18th February 1960 to Hsin Chong Co Ltd for a completion date of May 1962. As the contractor got on with the foundations and building construction, discussions continued with the airline representatives to finalise how the terminal would operate. One of the points of contention was that check-in counters would be allocated to airlines on demand and not be airline specific. It was also identified that airlines required maintenance stores so additional buildings would need to be erected.

Check In desks

Check-In Desks (1963)

In early 1961, revised passenger forecasts were published, showing an increase of 24.6%, and that the terminal building would be under capacity within two years of opening[xii]! A review of the building capacity was initiated and the deleted wings were immediately reinstated. This would be the start of the incremental expansion of Kai Tak to cope with passenger demand.

Observation Deck

Terminal Building, The viewing/passenger farewell & greeting deck (1962) was a very popular public venue.

Some delays were encountered during construction including the delivery of overseas procured items, missing the 20th April 1962 opening date, but at 5pm on the 2nd November the Governor, Sir Robert Black arrived at the terminal to unveil a bronze plaque to commemorate the opening of the $16 million dollar facility.

1962 Opening

Opening New Terminal Building (1962)

In addition to the passenger facilities, the terminal had a modern control tower with clear view of the runway and approaches. The tower also included a new radar system with a range of 320km, precision approach radar to guide the aircraft into landing and instrument landing system.

New Control Tower (1963)

Ancillary Buildings

The new airport would need a number of new facilities including a fire station, temporary control tower, airmail centre and freight building. As with the terminal building, Ramsey, Murray, White & Ward developed the concept design and Eric B Cumine prepared the working drawings for each of the buildings. During the development of the freight building, it was decided that the facility would have to initially function as a temporary terminal building, alleviating congestion in the existing building, until the completion of the dedicated terminal.

Construction of the freight/terminal building was awarded to Sang Hop Construction Co with work commencing in February 1959 for a completion in June 1959. The aggressive programme was not achieved and the building was eventually commissioned on the 21 September 1959.

1959 Temporary Terminal

Temporary Terminal Building (1959) Airline flags and public farewell & greeters line the roof.

Following the opening of the new terminal building the temporary terminal building was renovated and re-opened in 1963 as the freight building.

Further Development

As air traffic grew substantially, it was time to upgrade the facilities with a view forward to the operation of newly developing larger passenger capacity jet air liners such as the Boeing B747 ’Jumbo’ jets due in service by the 1970s. In October 1970, the runway was extended 850m to give a runway 3,400m long, along with additional taxiways, high speed turnoffs and bypass areas. The $181 million project was completed in 30 months[xiii]. The terminal building was enlarged on a number of occasions to cope with the growing demand and changes in technology.

1974 Runway Extension

Six air bridges were introduced in 1970 and with the introduction to Kai Tak of a Pan American Airways Boeing B-747 in April 1970 the terminal had been upgraded to handle 1,000 passengers per hour. In 1971, the Government approved the next phase in the terminal building development, increasing passenger handling to 3,200 per hour.

Kai Tak would continue to grow and became the third busiest international airport in the world by international passenger count, and the second busiest in international cargo. In 1995-96, it handled 28 million passengers and 1.48 million tonnes of cargo. It had grown from a failed property development to an iconic airport, but it was now constrained by location and it was time for a new airport at the remote island of Chek Lap Kok.

Modern Kai Tak

Modern Kai Tak







[i] The Planning and Design of the New Hong Kong Airport, Henry Grace, John Keith Maxwell Henry, ICE 1957

[ii] CAD Annual Report 1953

[iii] CAD Annual Report 1954

[iv] CAD Annual Report 1954

[v] CAD Quarterly Progress Report, ending 30th September 1955

[vi] The History of Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, Compiled by Geoff French, 2010

[vii] Airport of the Nine Dragons Kai Tak, Kowloon, A Story of Hong Kong Aviation, Capt Charles Chic Eather, 1997

[viii] Airport of the Nine Dragons Kai Tak, Kowloon, A Story of Hong Kong Aviation, Capt Charles Chic Eather, 1997

[ix] Governor Arrives in Helicopter, SCMP, 13 Sep 1958

[x] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Murray_(ceramic_artist)

[xi] https://www.macaubusiness.com/lisboa-the-monster/

[xii] CAD Annual Report 1961

[xiii] Wings Over Hong Kong, An Aviation History 1891-1998, 2000

This article was first posted on 28th June 2023.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 1 – Kai Tack Bund 
  2. Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 2 – Construction
  3. Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 3 – The Roaring Thirties
  4. Kai Tak Aerodrome Part 4 – War Time Operations
  5. Kai Tak Part 5 – Post War Airport



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